My Lucky Cricket Ball
With the ODI World Cup in the bag and cricket in the headlines again, it seems appropriate to use Just Backdated to reminisce, not about The Who or Melody Maker for once but about the only sport I truly love. My fondness for cricket goes back to when I was old enough to hold a bat and bowl a ball. In Yorkshire, where I was raised, cricket was a religion, on a much higher level than football or rugby, at least in our house. Indeed, cricket was in my blood.
As a young man my dad was handy with a bat and an impressive medium pace bowler. Invited to Headingley for trials with Yorkshire, his father had forbidden him from going. “No son of mine is earning his living with a bat and ball,” he admonished wisely, a quotation handed down to me like a meditator’s mantra. So dad ended up playing for Idle CC in the ultra-competitive Bradford League. At the age of 22 he captained the Idle side that won the Priestley Cup, the league’s principal competition. By the time I was born he'd given up league cricket and was playing regularly for The Hawks CC, a wandering club that played throughout Yorkshire and beyond.
For ten years, from the age of six to 16, dad and I attended the Scarborough Cricket Festival, occupying the same seats in the members’ stand that he and my grandfather had occupied for decades. I loved the carefree atmosphere of the Cricket Festival, the friendly way in which the matches were played, the brass band that performed in the afternoons, and the annual apple or orange bowled as likely as not by Fred Trueman after lunch during the first day of the Gentleman v Players match.
My dad’s parents lived in Scarborough, on Esplanade Road, where we stayed. Each morning during Festival week three generations of Charlesworths would drive to the North Marine Road Ground via the sea front and take our seats in time for the first ball bowled, me clutching a scorecard which I’d diligently fill in as play progressed. There were three three-day matches in those days, Gentlemen v. Players (Amateurs v Professionals), Yorkshire v. MCC and T.N. Pearces’ XI v. that season’s overseas touring side.
What made the whole Festival such great fun was that players past and present would stroll across the field from the pavilion to the marquees to take lunch and tea. Schoolboys like myself would lay in wait for them, and in this way I amassed an autograph book full of cricketing legends like Herbert Sutcliffe, Johnny Wardle, Norman Yardley, Maurice Leyland, Bill Edrich, Frank Tyson and Peter May, not to mention several championship-chasing Yorkshire sides from the Fifties and Sixties, led by Ray Illingworth or Brian Close. I still have that autograph book and on other pages there are the tourists, West Indians Clyde Walcott, Everton Weeks and Gary Sobers together as a trio on one page, on another the entire South African side from 1960, and on another a postcard sized picture of India, year unrecorded, with each player’s signature neatly written across their image.
Perhaps my most impressive group is the T. N. Pearce’s XI from the 73rd Festival. I had carefully cut the pictures of the players from the Scarborough evening paper, pasted them in the book and somehow got all 11 players to sign: P. E. Richardson, M. J. K. Smith, Godfrey Evans, F. S. Trueman, E. R. Dexter, Ken Barrington, Trevor Bailey, Colin Moss, Ray Illingworth, Harold Rhodes and one player whose name I can’t make out.
Top: Ted Dexter & Ken Barrington; below Godfrey Evans & Fred Trueman
At Scarborough dad turned out for a wandering side called Little Aston Stragglers who on the Sunday during festival week played an annual fixture against the West Riding Cricket Club at the Oriel, Scarborough’s ‘other’, smaller cricket ground. From the age I could hold a pencil I was recruited to score for the LA Stragglers. It broke my heart if ever I had to record a duck next to dad’s name.
Scarborough’s South Bay skyline was dominated by the elegant Grand Hotel where many of the players stayed and where a Cricketers’ Room was set aside in which they could dine, away from prying eyes like my own. The walls of the Cricketers’ Room were adorned with photographs and prints stretching back to the beginning of the century. I was about 13 when my dad’s parents celebrated their diamond wedding in that room in 1961.
As a member of Scarborough CC dad was entitled to drink with the players in the pavilion or marquees, and I spent hours outside these bars enjoying the cricket, sitting with my bottle (never a can!) of fizzy drink, my autograph book and scorecard to hand, daydreaming of great deeds on the pitch, admiring Godfrey’s Evans’ natural style behind the stumps, urging Ted Dexter on towards a quick fifty, marvelling at the way Freddie Trueman could throw a ball from the boundary edge straight into the keeper’s gloves above the bails.
As well as the Scarborough Festival dad took me to many test and county games at Headingley and Old Trafford where he would point out the famous players of the day, and Hawks fixtures in which he took part himself. In the mid-Sixties dad went up against Brian Sellars for the Keighley & Craven seat on Yorkshire CCC Committee but lost the poll by five votes. Around that time he successfully smuggled me into the Kennington Oval Pavilion by claiming, with his collusion, that I was Yorkshire batsman Jackie Hampshire’s younger brother.
All that is long past now. The truth is that despite all this youthful enthusiasm for the game I was never much good at it. I tried, and dad even enrolled me at Headingly one summer for a course overseen by Arthur Mitchell, the stern Yorkshire coach, who wasn’t impressed by my efforts. During the years when I was on the staff of Melody Maker I lost touch with cricket, especially when I lived in New York, though I recall clearly an evening in a restaurant there with my sister who’d come to visit in the summer of 1976. For some reason we talked about cricket and were overheard by an English couple on the next table. They joined us and we talked for hours. Like me they were starved of cricket conversation.
In the late Eighties, briefly, I re-assumed my cricketing life by turning out a few times for the Old Ruffians, a team made up from employees and friends of the Rough Trade record shop in Notting Hill Gate. We played in and around west London, often on a pitch that was below the elevated section of the M4 between Boston Manor and Brentford. Once we played at the Oval, when it was possible to hire a reduced form of the ground for £1,000 on a Sunday afternoon. Both teams chipped in £50 per player, and that included the scoreboard and access to the same changing rooms where the real cricketers strapped on their pads. What I remember most about the Old Ruffians games is our demon fast bowler Keith Allen who would bring his daughter Lily along, wheeling her around the boundary in a pushchair.
Henceforth I became a spectator and, though in the Nineties I attended a few Test Matches at both Lords and the Oval, I’m nowadays glued to Sky, as I have been for the past month. I’m always happy to watch games in which I have no particular interest in who wins, just because I love to watch a great batsman play his strokes or a great bowler nip one back and catch the edge on a day when swing is in the air. I have always preferred the ebb and flow of cricket to any other sport; the diverse individual skills that contribute to an all-round team performance, an all-encompassing contest, even if it does take a bit longer than most to reach a result.
That aspect of cricket, the time it takes to conclude a game, used to bemuse my American friends back in the day. When I mentioned to any of them that a game between two cricketing nations went on for five days they were astounded, and when I pointed out that even after five days the game could end in a draw they thought I was taking the piss.
Delighted though I was that England’s fabulous 50-over side won the World Cup on Sunday I thought that on the day New Zealand were the moral victors, but I temper this with the belief that England played better than any other side throughout the competition as a whole and, as a result, deserved to lift the trophy. Morgan’s cool leadership and six-hitting against Afghanistan was a joy, as were the opening platforms posted by Bairstow and Roy. Root is Mr Reliable, Buttler our sharpshooter. Archer is a stupendous find with tons of cricket ahead of him and the rest our bowling pack of Plunkett, Wood, Woakes and Rashid preyed like sharks. Then there was Stokes, no longer the hothead, whose keen eye for the way a game develops made him the key man in the side, most often with the bat but in the field too. His stupendous catch by the Oval boundary during the first game against South Africa set the tone for all that followed for me.
And when in the middle stages of the competition England seemed to be faltering I delved beneath the stairs of our house, found my lucky cricket ball and put it within reach as I watched the TV. That’s it at the top of this post, and on the reverse is ‘W. Walker, Keighley’, a sports shop where the Hawks CC bought their gear. It belonged to my dad and every so often during the rest of England’s games I leaned over and grabbed it, cradling it for a few moments and wishing dad was watching the light blue England team with me.
My dad, sketched wearing the green and yellow blazer of Idle CC.